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Thanksgiving ‘haggadah’ Helps Jews to Express the Emotions of Sept. 11

Ann Schaffer didn’t think she could celebrate Thanksgiving as usual this year, so soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

“To come to the table and not acknowledge what has happened would be very difficult,” said Schaffer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Belfer Center for Intergroup Relations.

When Schaffer found she wasn’t alone in these concerns, she and several colleagues decided to create a “Thanksgiving Haggadah” to help people incorporate into the annual fall holiday a memorial to the victims of the attacks.

“With Thanksgiving approaching, we began to wonder how we could both celebrate — and still acknowledge the deep pain and sense of loss that so many in our community are feeling,” Schaffer said. “We felt that some ritual and some words would help us through this. As Jews, we are accustomed to framing significant events with appropriate blessings, prayers and readings.”

The Haggadah, as it turned out, fit well with the AJCommittee’s mission, says Schaffer.

“As an American, Jewish committee, we are concerned about both the American and Jewish aspects of our lives,” Schaffer said. “The recent attacks have heightened our awareness both of our fragility as Americans and of our connection to Israel, which has long been a target of terrorist attacks. And as we gather around the Thanksgiving table, we bring our Jewish concerns to the table as well.”

The Haggadah model enables them to strike an appropriate mix of mourning and hope in the traditional Thanksgiving gathering.

“Haggadah, after all, means a telling,” Schaffer said. “You can use a Haggadah for almost any event.”

Haggadahs are used for Passover and, sometimes, for Tu B’Shevat.

The Thanksgiving version takes some of the Passover rituals and applies them to themes of mourning and giving thanks.

Sections include “Why is this Thanksgiving different?” “What have we lost?” “What have we learned?” and “What do we tell our children?”

The Haggadah includes special activities for children, such as “Four Questions” that children answer, not ask. The four-page booklet also includes quotes from the Bible, rabbis and poets and several transliterated prayers.

The AJCommittee sent the Haggadah in early November to rabbis across the country, encouraging them to make copies for their congregants. They also posted the booklet on the group’s Web site — www.ajc.org — for people to download, and sent it out as part of the organization’s bimonthly journal.

“So far the response has been very positive,” said Schaffer, who said she received dozens of e-mails in the first days after the Haggadah was released.

Rabbi Perry Rank of Syosset, N.Y., made 150 copies for his congregation. He said he thinks the Haggadah will help families get back to the real point of the holiday — giving thanks.

“When people sit down to a meal without a word of thanks to God or even to each other,” he said, “the holiday is diminished and its purpose compromised.”

Rank said the Haggadah reminds Americans of the freedoms they usually take for granted.

“At a time when those freedoms are under attack, it is all the more reason that we call them to mind,” he said. The Haggadah “has pulled together the right words and sentiments” in a “tasteful, simple and dignified way.”

Suzy Farkas, an administrator at Congregation Beth Israel in Milwaukee, requested 200 copies of the Haggadah. She says the rabbi is planning to distribute them to the congregation and to parents whose children study at the temple’s day school. The school is planning to incorporate the Haggadah into a lesson plan for older students.

Farkas did not think it strange to bring Jewish rituals into a secular, American, holiday. As a child of Holocaust survivors, she said, she has always been aware of how thankful many Jews feel to live in America.

There’s a correlation, she said, between the gratitude of the pilgrims and the gratitude of Jewish immigrants.

“So many Jews are grateful that we were able to come to this country and flourish and still be able to keep our Jewish identity,” she said.

Schaffer also noticed the correlation.

“American Jews are profoundly grateful to be in America,” she said. “I think we are conscious of our bounty, and we are conscious of our connection to Israel. We’re thinking and feeling in a particularly intense way right now. So the Haggadah helps us articulate our feelings.”

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